Sandy Springs plans to spend $900,000 this fiscal year on a 911 dispatch system that was intended to pay for itself.

Leaders of the three cities who participate in the locally-focused 911 system, which is called the Chattahoochee River 911 Authority and known as ChatComm, say the benefits of faster emergency response times outweigh the costs paid by the taxpayers.

Sandy Springs and Johns Creek have been partners in the service since 2008. Dunwoody joined in 2011. The authority outsources the center’s operations to iXP Corp., which has a contract through 2014.

There may also be additional revenue headed to ChatComm after changes in state law closed loopholes that allowed some phone providers to avoid paying the 911 service charges. But officials can’t say whether the 911 center will ever generate enough money to pay back the initial investment of millions in taxpayer money.

Sandy Springs City Manager John McDonough said he believes the system is worth the extra cost.

“The ChatComm 911 service plays an integral role in the city’s public safety system,” McDonough said. “It has worked well for the city, and our current plans are to continue funding this vital function for our residents.”

The cities of Sandy Springs and Johns Creek formed the Chattahoochee River 911 Authority in 2008. At the time, the cities believed it would generate a surplus. The cities also made a $5.5 million capital investment that was to be paid back through ChatComm revenues.

The cities anticipated money generated through the $1.50 per month 911 service fees charged to phone providers would cover the operating budget.

The fees fell short, but state Rep. Wendell Willard, Sandy Springs’ attorney and also a member of the ChatComm board, says recent changes to state law may bolster revenues.

Willard said during the June 13 ChatComm board meeting that the 911 service should soon see more money from pre-paid wireless phone companies and money from the state that wasn’t being turned over to the cities.

ChatComm budgets

Fiscal Year 2012

Budget: $6.3 million

Projected actual: $6.6 million*

Budgeted revenues: $6.3 million

Actual revenues: $6.6 million

Budgeted fee revenues: $4 million

Projected actual fee revenues: $4 million

*This figure reflects startup costs for the city of Dunwoody joining ChatComm

Fiscal Year 2013

Budget: $6.64 million

Budgeted revenues: $6.64 million

Budgeted fee revenues: $4 million

Source: ChatComm budget documents

ChatComm’s directors don’t yet know how much the revenues will be.

The board – which consists of Willard and Johns Creek City Manager John Kachmar – at the same meeting approved the Fiscal 2013 budget. The anticipated revenues are level with last year, records show.

“Every little bit helps,” Kachmar said.

During most of ChatComm’s existence, Sandy Springs has shouldered 65 percent of the money the cities have kicked in. Sandy Springs picked up most of the $5.5 million in start-up costs, which included a $1 million contribution from Johns Creek.

The 2013 budget includes an additional $179,500 from Johns Creek toward repaying some of the startup costs fronted by Sandy Springs. Kachmar said the initial formula had Sandy Springs contributing 70 percent of funds and Johns Creek contributing 30. ChatComm’s latest budget revised the numbers, based on the number of calls. Under the iXP contract, ChatComm must answer calls within 10 seconds 90 percent of the time and dispatch them within 60 seconds 90 percent of the time.

Records released by ChatComm show from Jan. 1 to May 31 the contractor answered calls within 10 seconds 99.9 percent of the time and dispatched 91 percent of them within 60 seconds.

Dunwoody, the newest member of ChatComm, adds some complications to response times.

Dunwoody contributes $1 million per year, in lieu of 911 fees.

Unlike Sandy Springs and Johns Creek, Dunwoody doesn’t have a fire department, which adds time to fire and EMS calls.

Councilman Terry Nall said ChatComm receives fire calls and then transfers them to DeKalb County, adding a minute and a half to calls.

The city is working on a way to use a computer assisted dispatch service to shorten the transfer times.

Kimberly Greer, Dunwoody’s assistant to the city manager, said the service was supposed to launch in March. She said at the June 13 meeting the city is experiencing technical issues and did not have a projected launch date for the service.

Sandy Springs City Council members haven’t argued with the ChatComm allocation as they have reviewed the upcoming budget for Fiscal Year 2013.

Though the city will contribute $900,000, ChatComm has only budgeted $800,000 in support. The rest will be kept in a contingency fund, according to Finance Director Karen Ellis.

Sandy Springs City Councilwoman Karen Meinzen McEnerny said ChatComm is “a good investment.”

“There’s no price on public safety and quick responsiveness, absolutely no price on it,” McEnerny said.

Sandy Springs City Councilman Chip Collins said he understands that ChatComm was expected to pay for itself, but he thinks it’s worth the money to have a system local cities can control.

“When I see the statistics that the response rates for our emergency responders have decreased and continue to decrease significantly, I’m satisfied that our investment is worth it because our No. 1 priority is to make sure our residents are safe,” Collins said.

 

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